Policing, racism and homelessness center stage in the 2021 ABQ mayoral election

Candidates say they want a better Burque but disagree on how to get there

By: - September 28, 2021 3:05 pm

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales addresses the audience and his fellow candidates — incumbent Mayor Tim Keller and radio personality Eddy Aragon — during the mayoral forum held on the evening of Monday, Sept. 27. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

The three mayoral candidates on the ballot in Albuquerque say they want the same thing. 

A better city. 

Radio personality Eddy Aragon: “As somebody who loves Albuquerque and has lived in different places, we need to do what we can in order to turn this city around. I’m going to run this city like somebody who loves it. When it comes to COVID, no mandates, ever.”

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales: “I was raised to work hard and serve other people and also be independent. I went into public safety because of personal strong convictions I have and my service to the people.”

Incumbent Mayor Tim Keller: “I want to join others on this stage in celebrating the love of our city. I think that’s why we are all here today.” 

Their differences lie in perspective on exactly how they would like to go about making it happen.

All three took the stage at Highland High School on Monday, Sept. 27, in a forum hosted by the New Mexico Black Voters Collaborative.

On Black Lives Matter

The forum kicked off with one question: Can you say Black Lives Matter?

Only one candidate would.

Here is how it went down.

Sheriff Gonzales: “I would say all lives matter. My campaign manager is a Black woman. While I was in the Marine Corps, my roommates were Black.”

Mayor Keller: “Black Lives Matter,” he said before talking about supporting an Office of African American Affairs and focusing on police reform efforts.  

Candidate Eddy Aragon addresses the audience at the mayoral forum hosted by the New Mexico Black Voters Collaborative at Highland High School on Monday, Sept. 27. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

Aragon, a radio personality, offered to display proof of a recent DNA test showing he does have Black ancestry (4.6%). The crowd laughed at him.

He said something about how Juneteenth — the Black liberation holiday — replaced Father’s Day on a calendar he owns in a bizarre statement about absent fathers. 

“I believe I have already had my Black card removed by someone in the community,” Aragon mentioned after the crowd also laughed at his absent understanding of Juneteenth.

So Aragon’s response to the BLM question: “All lives matter, period. I think we need to understand as a Republican and being 4.6% Black, I want you to understand something about all of us being equal. We need to move forward in this country.” 

He would go on to say several times throughout the forum that it is racist to bring race into discussions when asked about equity related to housing, policing and community safety.

To organizers of the event, the discussion needed to be introduced.

“We have to recognize that there is some historical trauma in Albuquerque, in New Mexico, nationally, that we have to address, we can’t overlook,” said Rodney Bowe, co-founder of the collaborative. “We’ve got to make sure that we have diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility in the equation.”

Bowe said he doesn’t speak for all Black people, of course, but said that he has never seen Aragon active with Albuquerque’s Black community.

On law enforcement

The tension between higher crime rates and police reform is front-and-center in the 2021 mayoral campaign — as it has been for years. 

Gonzales, the Bernalillo County sheriff since 2009, speaks what he knows: police administration. He was asked a question about constitutional policing framed around longstanding court-ordered reforms for the Albuquerque Police Department.

Bernalillo County Sheriff and mayoral candidate Manny Gonzales addresses the audience at the forum hosted by the New Mexico Black Voters Collaborative at Highland High School on Monday, Sept. 27. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

“We need to get to the point where we start making policies that are beneficial to the safety of the people, therefore removing the politics from public safety,” he said. “When you take an oath of office, your oath as an elected official is to the Constitution. To do anything less would be subverting your constitutional duties to the people.”

Gonzales came under fire in 2020 when he went to the White House to meet with ex-President Trump and invited federal agents to Albuquerque. All summer long, videos had emerged of those agents in other cities being violent with demonstrators, injuring them and taking other actions many around the country decried as unconstitutional.

This year, Albuquerque’s police union launched a campaign that implies increasing crime rates are a result of reforms that stymie law enforcement. Keller responded to that vein of criticism at the forum. “Because it’s under a U.S. federal judge, reform is also not a choice,” he said. 

Keller talked about plans to redirect behavioral health emergency calls that come to police. “When you call 911, you will get a third response, a social worker, a trained professional, so the situation won’t escalate.”

On economy

Despite an earlier failure in social studies, Aragon said he has the business acumen to focus on the city’s economy, starting with the ART buses. “If cost-effective, we will remove the Albuquerque Rapid Transit,” he said. “I want to prioritize the planning and commercial development.”

Gonzales linked immigration, economy and crime, saying sanctuary city policies add to economic problems for migrants. “I actually believe sanctuary cities is a policy that is very bigoted in the fact that it pits immigrants against a majority-minority state, which we are, and leaves economic crumbs from the absolutely worst economy in the country. It creates crime.”

Keller boasted of companies like Netliflix and NBCUniversal that have set up shop in Albuquerque under his term as mayor. He was also asked about his support for a controversial minor league soccer stadium, which he defended, saying the city has bond money available to pay for both the stadium and affordable housing. 

“The city has $100 million to spend,” he said. “The idea is, let’s put half in a long-term investment for families for the future so that we have something wonderful to enjoy with our families. It’s not the NFL. It’s not Major League Baseball. This is just something about future generations for our city and what our city looks like 40 years down the road.”

Incumbent Mayor Tim Keller answers a question while candidate Eddy Aragon takes notes at the mayoral forum on Monday, Sept. 27. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

On homelessness

Keller defended how his administration has handled housing shortages and homelessness in his first four years in office. “Homelessness is rising all over the country,” he said. He added that every candidate should support the creation of a housing facility called the Gateway Center, not only because it was approved by voters, but also because it can be the central location for services of the city’s most vulnerable people. “That’s the clearing house,” he said. “You are able to go there and have a bed, have a shower, have food, and then get sorted out to addiction and treatment, get a housing voucher, get supportive housing. That’s what we need to fill the gap in the system.” 

Voters passed a $14 million bond to create the center in 2019. “We have to have somewhere where people can go,” Keller said. “I want to remind everyone that the public voted on the Gateway Center, and they voted yes. If you’re not happy with that then you are going against what the voters said. What we have to have is a no-barrier place of entry.”

Keller’s opponents mostly echoed his sentiments, including talking about how the city will help bring homes to the growing unsheltered population.

Black voting power

Bowe, co- founder of the Black Voters Collaborative, said the debate was essential to let candidates know that issues affecting Black people in New Mexico also affect everyone else in the state. 

“We need to make sure that the community understands our issues,” Bowe said. “And our issues actually impact not only Albuquerque, but the state of New Mexico. And these are issues that also impact the nation.”

The collaborative was created to raise awareness of the power Black voters have in the state. This was the group’s first mayoral forum. 

Cathryn McGill, the executive director and co-founder of New Mexico Black Leadership Council, poses a question to the three candidates at the mayoral forum Monday evening. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

“It gives you an indication of where they stand and their value system,” Bowe said. “It gives you an indication of where they’re going to put their resources and where they’re not going to put the resources.” 

The collaborative called for questions from the public before the forum, and people from the Asian American community asked about language access. No candidate could answer it. 

“We’re going to be reaching out to all the candidates again, just to see again what their values are. And to make sure this is not just about the Black community,” Bowe said. “We are looking at moving the Black vote forward, empowering the Black vote here in the state of New Mexico. But we also need allies, and we also want to make sure that our allies, as well, are being a part of the equation.”

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.